MacroScope

El Niño may not give Brazil much to worry about on food prices

File photo of loaded soybean truck for BRAZIL SOY.

Now that Brazilian food prices are finally settling down, it looks like El Niño will strike back in a couple of months to throw the world’s weather into disarray.

Bad news for Brazil’s Finance Minister, Guido Mantega?

Not necessarily.

It could just as easily be a blessing, economists say. The changes in climate patterns caused by warmer Pacific waters could actually be a boon for Brazilian soy and corn producers while not necessarily disrupting other crops.

It is not clear yet if the El Niño phenomenon will happen this year – the odds are high at about 70 percent, according to the U.S. and Australian weather agencies.

But Brazil’s recent streak of bad luck in its fight against inflation has allowed many to question whether another shock might be brewing, just as the country recovered from a dry spell that sent food prices soaring and raised the threat of energy and water rationing.

Indeed, inflation expectations in neighboring Colombia are already going up on El Niño fears, according to a recent Reuters poll.

Don’t stop fighting inflation, banks tell Brazil policymakers

Brazil's Central Bank President Tombini reacts during a ceremony to announce Measures of Consumer Protection at the Planalto Palace in Brasilia

A small piece of good news on Brazil’s inflation rate last week probably gave the central bank its best pretext yet to finally stop raising interest rates after more than one year of non-stop increases. But economists still think it’s too early to proclaim “mission accomplished”.

Keeping interest rates at the current 11 percent will do little to reduce inflation in the months ahead, economists at Itau Unibanco, Santander and Bank of America Merrill Lynch said, despite a smaller-than-expected increase in consumer prices last month.

Their pessimistic outlook contrasts with the central bank’s, which has signaled it is willing to stop raising rates soon by saying that the 375-point increase since April last year was “sizable” and is yet to have a meaningful effect.

Firing up Brazil’s economy

A hot, dry spell in southeastern Brazil has pushed up energy prices, stretched government finances and raised the threat of water rationing in its largest city, Sao Paulo, just months before it hosts one of the world’s largest sport events, the soccer World Cup.

It looks like the last thing Brazil needed as it scrambles to woo investors and avoid a credit downgrade.

But if the scattered rains that started to pour down over the past few days bring in continued relief through March, the heat could actually prove to be a much-needed boost for Brazil’s economy, research firm LCA found.

Brazil’s need for dollars to shrink in 2014 – but the long-term view remains bleak

Brazil’s current account deficit will probably narrow this year. That may sound as a reassuring (or rather optimistic) forecast after the recent sharp sell-off in emerging markets, which prompted Turkey to raise interest rates dramatically to 12 percent from 7.75 percent in a single shot on Tuesday. But that was the outlook of three major banks – HSBC, Credit Suisse and Barclays - in separate research published earlier this week.

The gap, a measure of the extra foreign resources Brazil needs to pay for the goods and services it buys overseas, will probably shrink to 3.0-3.4 percent of GDP in 2014, from 3.7 percent last year, they said.

“Brazil’s external vulnerabilities are overstated,” claims Barclays’ Sebastian Brown, adding: “the central bank’s FX intervention program should limit bouts of excessive BRL weakness.”

Emerging wobbles

This week will go a long way to determining whether a violent emerging market shake-out turns into a prolonged panic or is limited to a flight of hot money that quickly fizzles out.

On our patch, Turkey is under searing pressure, largely of its own making and that is the theme here. Yes, the Federal Reserve’s slowing of money printing is the common factor, prompting funds to quit emerging markets, but it is those countries with acute problems of their own that are really under the cosh.

Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s purging of the police and judiciary in response to a corruption inquiry that has got uncomfortably close to him has unnerved investors. The central bank, under political pressure, has not raised interest rates but is instead burning through its reserves to defend the lira with only limited success.

from Global Investing:

Watanabes shop for Brazilian real, Mexican peso

Are Mr and Mrs Watanabe preparing to return to emerging markets in a big way?

Mom and pop Japanese investors, collectively been dubbed the Watanabes, last month snapped up a large volume of uridashi bonds (bonds in foreign currencies marketed to small-time Japanese investors),  and sales of Brazilian real uridashi rose last month to the highest since July 2010, Barclays analysts say, citing official data.

Just to remind ourselves, the Watanabes have made a name for themselves as canny players of the interest rate arbitrage between the yen and various high-yield currencies. The real was a red-hot favourite and their frantic uridashi purchases in 2007 and 2009-2011 was partly behind Brazil's decision to slap curbs on incoming capital. Their ardour has cooled in the past two years but the trade is far from dead.

With the Bank of Japan's money-printing keeping the yen weak and pushing down yields on domestic bonds, it is no surprise that the Watanabes are buying more foreign assets. But if their favourites last year were euro zone bonds (France was an especially big winner)  they seem to be turning back towards emerging markets, lured possibly by the improvement in economic growth and the rising interest rates in some countries. And Brazil has removed those capital controls.

Too early to call revival in Latin America manufacturing

It may be too early to herald a revival of Latin America’s manufacturing following a recent currency decline, according to a report by London-based research firm Capital Economics.

Increased competitiveness of local factories has been seen as a good side effect of the currency shock triggered by prospects of reduced economic stimulus in the United States. However, the data compiled by Capital Economics suggests there is still a long way to go before investors see any fireworks.

David Rees, emerging markets economist at Capital Economics, wrote in his report:

For workers, the long run has arrived in Latin America

The outlook for emerging market economies over the next decade looks more challenging as long-term interest rates start to bottom out in the United States. Here is another complicating factor: ageing populations.

That problem is not as serious as in Japan or Europe, of course. Still, investors probably need to cut down their expectations for economic growth in Latin America over the next years, according to a report by BNP Paribas.

The graphic below shows the declining demographic contribution for economic growth in Latin American countries. The trend is particularly bad in Chile, Venezuela and Brazil:

Brazil’s foreign reserves are not all that big

Traumatized by several currency crises in the past, Brazil has made a dedicated effort in recent years to amass $374 billion in foreign reserves as China bought mountains of its iron ore and soybeans. When the next crisis came, policymakers figured, the reserves would act as Brazil’s first line of defense.

It turns out that those reserves, which jumped from just $50 billion in 2006, may still not be large enough, Bank of America-Merrill Lynch analysts found in a report on the increased volatility in foreign exchange markets as the U.S. Federal Reserve prepares to scale back part of its monetary stimulus.

Using central bank monthly data on the stock of foreign investments in Brazil, David Beker and Claudio Irigoyen estimated that foreigners hold about $1.2 trillion in Brazil. While most ($785 billion) of that amount consists in longer-term direct investments, portfolio investments such as equities and debt still far exceed the central bank’s reserve cushion at $415 billion.

Brazil’s capital controls and the law of unintended consequences

Brazilian economic policy is fast becoming a shining example of the law of unintended consequences. As activity fades and inflation picks up, the government has tried several different measures to fix the economy – and almost every time, it ended up creating surprise side-effects that made matters worse. Controls on gasoline prices tamed inflation, but opened a hole in the trade balance. Efforts to reduce electricity fares ended up curbing, not boosting, investment plans.

Perhaps that’s the case with yesterday’s surprise decision to scrap a key tax on foreign inflows into fixed-income investments. The so-called IOF tax was one of Brazil’s main defenses in its currency war, making local bonds less appealing to speculators and helping prevent an excessive appreciation of the real.

As the Federal Reserve started to discuss tapering off its massive bond-buying stimulus, investors began to flock back to the United States. So with less need to impose capital controls, Brazil thought it would be a good idea to open its doors again to hot money. Analysts overall also welcomed the move, announced by Finance Minister Guido Mantega in a quick press conference on Tuesday, in which he said that excessive volatility is “not good” for markets and that Brazil was headed to a period of “lesser” intervention in currency markets.